In mental health there is a spectrum that runs from depression to flourishing. It’s the difference between feeling exhausted and hopeless, and vibrant and thriving. Many people fit neither description. They don’t feel exhausted or hopeless, but neither do they feel like greeting the day with open arms in the morning.
Back home in Scotland, when people ask, “How are you?” a common reply is, “I’m OK, thanks, getting there.” There’s a collective acknowledgment of plodding through the day, getting on with things, and going through the motions. As it turns out, there’s a word for that “meh” feeling: languishing.
The concept was highlighted by sociologist Corey Keyes in his 2002 research paper, “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life”. Keyes defines languishing as “a state in which an individual is devoid of positive emotion towards life, and is not functioning well either psychologically or socially, and has not been depressed during the past year. In short, languishers are neither mentally ill nor mentally healthy.”
The pioneer of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, observed that a key flaw of psychology in the past 60 years was figuring out how to take people who are miserable and teach them how to be less miserable. In other words, while there was a focus on fixing mental ill-health, there wasn’t much for those in the majority who had no mental ill-health but couldn’t be described as flourishing either.
Positive psychology aims to answer the question, “What makes life worth living?” and help people answer that question by building meaningful, engaging lives. A common misconception of positive psychology is that it’s about being positive and ignoring the difficulties of life. On the contrary, positive psychology takes into account that positive emotions are only one of several means to a thriving life (interestingly, they’re not the most important ingredient).
A starting point in positive psychology is to recognise and accept where we are struggling in life, so that we might improve in those areas. This approach is different to the pseudoscience we often see where “positive vibes” are prescribed as the remedy for discontent and dissatisfaction.
In fact, the harder you try to be happy when you’re not, the unhappier you become. Trying to feel happy when you’re anything but is an avoidance strategy – you hope or pretend that life is different to how it is, rather than accepting how things are. Life can be a slog at times and work life can be demanding and overwhelming, particularly as we adapt to pandemic norms. It’s important to acknowledge this reality so we can orient ourselves to make the necessary changes we need to thrive.
So what can we do if we’re in a state of languishing? American psychologist Adam Grant calls it “the neglected middle child of mental health, the absence of well-being”. Even if we’re not languishing ourselves, it’s useful to understand and know how to climb out of the psychological rut that many of us find ourselves in from time to time. As observed by Keyes in 2010, people who are currently languishing are at risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders further down the line
With that in mind, below are some tips we can use to increase our sense of wellness and, hopefully, rejuvenate our drive for the things that make life worth living. It’s worth remembering that looking after our mental health is just like taking care of our physical health: it’s an ongoing process, and consistency is key to good overall health.
Notice the signs: Being aware of any issue is the first step to addressing it. Signs that you’re languishing can include feeling demotivated, an inability to manage everyday tasks, “zoning out” at work, feeling aimless or joyless (but not necessarily unhappy), feeling discontent, and losing the drive to do things that usually bring pleasure and meaning to your life.
Find your state of flow: Flow (or “being in the zone”) is that pleasant sense we feel when we’re absorbed in activities we enjoy and time flies by. If you’re languishing, being intentional about engaging in pleasant activities can help. Whether it’s watching a good movie, reading, gardening, playing an instrument, drawing or colouring, whatever puts you in a state of flow can help ease that “meh” feeling.
Set boundaries: Constant interruptions can add to that “meh” feeling. Setting boundaries that provide you with blocks of uninterrupted time to work on important tasks increases progress, which provides a sense of motivation and accomplishment.
Start small: It can be overwhelming to think of the many things that demand our attention as well as making space for ourselves. As a result, we can end up wasting more time, which makes us feel worse.
To combat this, pick one or two things to get done early in the day to add to that sense of progress and accomplishment. Set time aside in the evening – even if it’s only 20 or 30 minutes – to focus on something for yourself that you enjoy.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.